In the popular film Wag the Dog, an American President caught molesting a young girl seeks to divert attention away from the sex scandal; a mock “invasion” of Albania is staged, Hollywood-style, complete with faked film footage and bogus carnage, L’affaire Lewinsky debuted the same week, and federal officials—threatening military action against Iraq as news of presidential priapism hit the media—publicly scoffed at the idea that this may be a case of life imitating art. But privately— as even Clinton loyalists like Leon Panetta suggested the President may have to step down, and Washington’s sharks smelled blood in the water—the confluence of art and reality must have given them pause. To have launched Gulf War II in that context would have been a public relations disaster. Better to wait a few weeks or even months: by that time, they figured, either Gore will be President or the whole affair will have blown over. In any event, the movie will soon be out of the theaters and out of the public consciousness, and perhaps then we can get on with the serious business of murdering the Iraqi people.

This has been an ongoing project of the United States government. While a military strike would be its crowning “success,” the less cinematic form of mass murder carried out by American policymakers for the past seven years is not to be overlooked. Among the weapons in the arsenal of the modern warfare state, economic sanctions are perhaps the crudest. American missiles can pulverize an entire neighborhood in a matter of moments, but the slow death of economic strangulation can destroy an entire people in a few years. According to the U.N.’s own reports, more than a million Iraqis have died as a direct result of the strictest sanctions ever imposed, 547,000 of them children. More than one-third of all Iraqi children are malnourished: 4,500 children under age five are dying each month from hunger and disease, a sixfold increase since the onset of this merciless embargo. Iraq was once a nation that was proud of its relative modernity and its thriving middle class; today, the country is reduced, by every measure of civilization, to the level of Subsaharan Africa. Fifty-three bishops of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference have condemned the sanctions as immoral. As a measure of malice, the ban on the importation of books, as well as food and vital medical supplies, underscores the fact that the sanctions are aimed at the Iraqi people, and not just Saddam Hussein.

As the human consequences of the sanctions become widely known, the official rationale for U.S. policy—that the Iraqis possess and plan to use “weapons of mass destruction”—becomes grotesque. What is the result of these monstrous sanctions if not mass destruction?

As a form of discourse, war propaganda has a distinctive style: there is a boldness about it that leaps out at you, and not only denies but shamelessly inverts the truth. In their war on Ken Starr, the pronouncements of the Clintonistas have acquired this tone of militant mendacity, culminating in the President’s own rendition of righteous anger: “I did not have sexual relations with That Woman,” he announced, looking straight into the television cameras. The same brazen quality came out a week later when he faced those cameras and declared that Saddam “threatens the safety of his people, the stability of the region, and the security of all the rest of us.” That it is Saddam, not the United States, which is threatening to pulverize Iraq and blithely estimating “collateral damage” (i.e., civilian deaths) in the thousands, is a lie believed by no one. That Saddam is a threat to his neighbors is directly contradicted by the refusal of even the most abject American satraps, such as the Saudis and tiny Bahrain, to let the United States use their territory to launch an attack. And as Arab hatred of Uncle Sam intensifies, and threatens to boil over into a general Mideast conflagration, it is fair to ask; Who is really endangering “the security of all the rest of us”?

The idea that the Iraqis “have the capacity to hit Tel Aviv” with chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons, irresponsiblv touted by U.N. disarmament overlord Richard Butler in a speech to a gathering in New York, is contradicted by the public statements of his predecessor, Rolf Ekeus. As head of the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq, Ekeus announced that Iraq no longer posed a military threat to its neighbors. “I do not think that Iraq could constitute a threat to the region,” Ekeus told a news conference in the summer of 1995. Just back from a trip to Baghdad, he descried “a 180-degree change” in Iraqi compliance with U.N. demands for full disclosure of Iraq’s military arsenal. At the same time, the International Atomic Energy Agency declared that “there is no possibility” that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons, and its spokesman announced that “there is a new atmosphere of transparency. We are satisfied that the information we received looks very credible.”

As for chemical weapons, Iraq was given a clean bill of health by Israel’s army chief, Major General Amnon Shahak, who told a parliamentary committee in 1995 that Iraq “no longer had chemical weapons,” according to an Israeli official. “According to our estimates,” said the official, “there are no longer chemical weapons in Iraq.” Not only that, but Shahak also pronounced Iraq bereft of any missile delivery system of consequence.

What happened between the summer of 1995 and the winter of 1998 to make the Iraqis such a menace? We are asked to believe that, under the constraints of the embargo and the most intrusive and comprehensive industrial surveillance system ever instituted, Iraq managed not only to maintain but to expand its covert weapons program. Yet not one scintilla of evidence exists to support this conclusion.

In response to Iraqi compliance, the United States and Great Britain upped the ante: instead of lifting the deadly sanctions, the West tightened the screws and made more demands. The monitoring system set up by the U.N. was to be extended into Saddam’s official residences, the infamous “presidential palaces,” previously denounced by American officials as emblematic of the Iraqi dictator’s hedonistic lifestyle: Saddam is building luxurious palaces, they said, while the Iraqi people are starving. As the propaganda campaign gathered steam, however, these symbols of Saddam the Sybarite began to take on a more sinister aspect: hidden in Saddam’s many basements, we were told, are enough toxins to wipe out the world’s population several times over!

The Iraqis even took Western reporters on a tour of these fabled palaces, stuffed to the rafters with ornate furniture, marble mosaics, and bronze statues of the Iraqi leader in a thousand heroic poses. Asked why the presidential sites were being opened to reporters but not to U.N. inspectors, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz replied: “You are guests. You are not inspectors. Guests are allowed, inspectors are not allowed. Very simple.”

The Iraqis make the charming argument that asking for access to these presidential sites would be like asking the U.S. to open up the White House or Camp David for inspection. This old-fashioned idea that the same standards apply everywhere to all nations and governments belongs to our republican past. Now that we are a full-fledged empire —a “global hegemon,” as Weekly Standard editor William Kristol likes to put it—all acts of defiance, no matter how small, are acts of lése majesté, and must be severely punished, lest others get ideas. Saddam won’t open the doors of his harem to “weapons inspectors”? Let the bombing begin!

The most bizarre and ominous aspect of all this was the position taken by the Republican congressional leadership: both Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich declared that another bombing campaign would be futile and that Saddam must “somehow” be forced from power. What these two cagey politicians left carefully unsaid, but forcefully implied, is openly proclaimed by the “hegemonists” over at the Weekly Standard, where Robert Kagan, the neoconservative Clausewitz, bewails “Saddam’s Impending Victory” and bemoans the fact that “air power is not enough to bring the Iraqis to their knees.” Having assured us throughout the debate leading up to Gulf War I that air power would indeed be sufficient to make short work of Saddam, the interventionists have now turned on a dime—without, of course, acknowledging that any such turnabout has taken place. “Only ground forces can find and destroy weapons-production facilities with a high degree of confidence that they have been destroyed.” Therefore, according to this loony logic, the United States must occupy every square inch of Iraqi territory. New York Times columnist William Satire has chimed in with the suggestion that an invasion ought to culminate in “teaching the Iraqis how to hold an election.”

Such an election, amid smoldering ruins, was recently held in Bosnia, where Serbian nationalist radio and television stations were shut down by American troops and all opposition to the occupation was banned as “hate speech.” This Pollyannish scenario ignores the history and culture of the region: Saddam may perish in the conflagration, but there will be other Saddams who will rise to take his place—a resurrection engineered by U.S. policymakers, who fail to appreciate the power and significance of martyrdom in the political culture of Islam.

Amid signs of a rapprochement with Iran—signaled by the advent of a Tocqueville-quoting Iranian President—the possibility of Gulf War II is ominous indeed. For what it promises is the dismemberment and division of Iraq, America’s permanent occupation of the Iraqi oilfields, and a leap into a morass from which there will be no extrication.

Boris Yeltsin was vilified for daring to suggest that American actions in the Gulf could set off World War III. Anyone can see, however, that the end of the Cold War has not eliminated the danger of a third—and perhaps final—world war. In Iraq, three out of the four great civilizational powers intersect: Islam, the West, and a defeated and resentful Slavic empire. Saddam, as the leader of the Baathist or socialist tendency in the Arab world, fits in nowhere neatly: as a secularist modernizer, he is anathema to fundamentalists, who swear allegiance to Teheran. He is an intransigent nationalist, and thus the sworn enemy of the West. Only the Russians have shown any sympathy for the Iraqis, but Moscow is reduced to playing the role of mediator and cannot offer military protection: in any showdown with the United States and Britain, the Iraqis are on their own.

Saddam and the Iranian mullahs represent the two great tendencies competing for cultural and political dominance in the Arab world, one modernist and the other medievalist. The struggle broke out in open warfare during the Iran-Iraq war, which devastated both countries. The demonization of Saddam as “worse than Hitler,” as George Bush put it, has obscured America’s tilt toward Iran, now formalized by Iranian overtures and a warm, albeit cautious, American response. While American complicity in Iran’s shipments of arms to Bosnian Muslims is well known, the arms-length embrace of the Iranian mullahs by the Clinton administration makes this alliance semi-official.

If Bill Kristol were to get his fondest wish, and an American invasion succeeded in planting the flag of “democracy” in Iraq, its domain would not extend far beyond Baghdad. The breakup of Iraq would likely lead to the creation of a separate Shiite Muslim “republic” in the south, aligned with Iran: this is the price of Iranian acquiescence. Saddam’s demise would also almost certainly lead to the renewal of the ongoing struggle for a separate Kurdish nation in the north. The introduction of the Kurdish factor into the equation means that any conflict would spread to at least four other nations in the region—Turkey, Syria, Iran, and the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan—all of which have substantial Kurdish minorities that long for political and cultural independence. As the U.S., Iran, and others face off over the Iraqi corpse, the image of vultures feasting is hard to escape.

Vultures are greedy, quarrelsome creatures, just as likely to turn on each other as they are to attack the weak and the dying. Yeltsin was right: in Iraq, all the ingredients of a global conflagration are in the mix, not only religion, nationalism, and the passions they invoke, but also the fate of Iraq’s vast oil wealth, great pools of it bubbling beneath the scorched earth.

It is hopelessly naive to believe that the giant multinational corporations, which do a thriving business in the region, have failed to exert considerable influence over American policy. These same interests are well served by the advocates of outright invasion in both parties: American troops can seize Iraq’s oil fields, but who will pump the oil out of them? A sure-fire method of identifying the source of a government policy or a political movement is to ask the key question: Cui bono? Who profits? War, and a propaganda campaign to support it, does not come out of nowhere. While Hillary Rodham Clinton is taken seriously when she blames “a vast right-wing conspiracy” for the sexual peccadilloes of her errant husband, the same rhetoric employed to describe the events leading up to a war is routinely dismissed as beyond the pale, and dangerous to boot.

Some Republicans, however, have bravely spoken out. Before the agreement was hashed out by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Representative Steven E. Buyer of Indiana asked point blank: “Why are emotions running so high at the White House? Why are the tom-toms of war sounding?” Representative Ron Paul of Texas excoriated his jingoist colleagues for “trying to appease the military-industrial complex and appear tough for campaign ads.” He complained that “once hostilities begin, debating the policy which created the mess is off-limits; the thinking goes that everybody must support the troops by blindly and dumbly supporting irrational and irresponsible policies.” The only solution, he concludes, “is a pro-American constitutional policy of nonintervention.” But “unfortunately, we cannot expect such common sense to prevail in the current political climate.”

Paul’s sentiments are correct, but his pessimism is unwarranted and shortsighted. As Patrick J. Buchanan put it, the use of ground troops would require a half-million soldiers in arms, and this means “cannibalizing U.S. forces around the world, calling up the reserves, and perhaps reinstituting the draft. We may soon see just how enthusiastic we really are about playing Globocop, if it comes to the serious shedding of American blood.”

Pat Buchanan and the editors of this magazine, in alliance with other conservatives and libertarians, stood firm against the war hysteria that preceded Gulf War I. The next time around, with the stakes even higher, that same alliance has the potential to expand its ranks to include the overwhelming majority of Americans. If our rulers decide to scrap Kofi Annan’s settlement with Saddam, they could unleash the dogs of war and ignite a social and political explosion that will make the 1960’s seem relatively tranquil.